Monday, August 30, 2010
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
So, on the fourth Sunday of my Sabbatical, I visited one of those churches—a friendly neighborhood Baptist church in my own community. I don’t know why I chose this one. Maybe it’s because I feel some sense of kinship with them. When I first moved to town fifteen years ago, their pastor (long since moved on to greener pastures) was the first Baptist pastor to come meet me and welcome me to Hot Springs. I’ve also preached there a time or two when a young pastor I know served there. And their previous pastor spent some time with me trying to help me be a better guitar player. I like these folks. I know some of them. Maybe that’s why I chose to visit there.
When Dayna and I arrived we met their new pastor and his wife at the back door. Others greeted us. Several recognized us and made an effort to find us and welcome us. What a friendly greeting! There is warmth there, Christian hospitality. We took our customary place at the back (for which their music leader good-naturedly teased me during the service). After several announcements and some joking around with one another on the podium, the pastor said a prayer and worship began. The church has a praise band to lead the worship. We opened the service by singing God of the City by Chris Tomlin. This is a contemporary Christian song that speaks to the fact that God is God of the city, Lord of the people, and King of the nation. It says that “greater things are yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city.” It’s a great song. It was new to them, and they sang it as best they could. Then, in a kind of formal ceremony, a church leader recognized the Pastor Search Committee for their efforts in bringing their new pastor on board. He called them to the altar and presented them with certificates of appreciation. The people applauded the committee. Next, there were a couple of traditional hymns that everybody knew. And there was lots of prayer. At one point the music leader even asked me to pray. I think I counted six times somebody prayed during the service. I liked it. After the offering and a nice gospel solo called The Anchor Holds, the new pastor preached a sermon on Jonah 1. He used Jonah as an example to call us to obedience. He offered some good insights into the text and helped us apply it to our lives. He mixed in a personal story or two and some humor here and there. He doesn’t want his church to be like Jonah, running from God, being disobedient to the heavenly vision, skirting their responsibilities, or waiting for someone else to do the work and fulfill their mission. He expects, God expects, them to do it. At the invitation, while we were singing I Surrender All, someone responded to seek prayer with the pastor. Perhaps she wanted to surrender all to Jesus. Perhaps it was something more confessional or personal; the pastor didn’t say. After a verse of the hymn, we prayed again, and then we were done.
Of all the things we experienced on Sunday, there was one thing that caught my attention and has left the most lasting impression. Early in the service, the pastor announced a new tutoring program for students in the Hot Springs School District, and he was challenging the church to join this program and reach out to these kids. It was mentioned as well that their fairly new gymnasium had been cleaned up and was ready to be put back into full use. Then, as the music leader was announcing the song God of the City, he said these stunning words: “The pastor wants us to be THE church in Hot Springs.” Three things struck me about that statement. First, of the 60 or so people present, nobody laughed. Second, they are taking some actions to make it happen. And third, I got the feeling that they believe it can happen. A part of me felt like David’s detractors who could only laugh and jeer when he said he’d take on Goliath. But David didn't think it was funny. David had bigger faith in a bigger God than did his detractors. “Let me at that giant,” he said, “because it’s not about me and my size and my power; it’s about God and His size and His power. I may be a Yorkie in your eyes, but I’m a Rottweiler in the hands of God. The battle is not mine; the battle is the Lord's.” Don't you just love that spirit? I love it because if a big church like ours says, “We want to be THE church in Hot Springs,” people expect it. We’ve got size, resources, location, and influence. When we say that, it sounds like good business. But when a little neighborhood church says it, it sounds like big faith. So you know what I say? I say, "More Holy Spirit power to them as they seek to become THE church in Hot Springs!" And even more, may all the churches in our city that love and worship Christ become together THE church in Hot Springs—the church (plural) with one passion, one hope, one message: Jesus Christ is Lord and only He can save and transform every life, every family, and every institution in our city. Bill Hybels describes the local church as the hope of the world. I think this neighborhood Baptist church believes that too and wants to do something about it.
Some years ago the wonderful writer Annie Dillard wrote these words: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' … hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” If this friendly neighborhood Baptist church continues to be “sensible of conditions” and to worship a big God with big faith, God may well do big, big things through them they could never do on their own. If that happens, they will break the mold of the dying, struggling neighborhood church because their best days won’t be in the past; they will be in the future. And if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against them. God has done more with less before.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I attended the University of Arkansas and prayed and prayed that God would provide me a Christian roommate as I moved into Yocum Hall. He got there before I did, and boy, was I glad to see a Bible on his bookshelf. But, shoot, he could have done that for mom or dad when they helped him move in. Once they head for home, his Bible might get tossed in some drawer and never taken out again. “Lord,” I whispered, “I think you’ve answered my prayer, but I’m going to hold judgment on that until I meet him, if that’s okay.” O me of little faith. When he got back to the room, we met and I found out that he was not only a Christian, but a serious Christian—a go to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and even Wednesday night kind of Christian. Heck, I figured he was even a better Christian than I was. “Thank you, God!”
But he was a Christian from some off brand called the Church of Christ, and I knew nothing about the Church of Christ (except for the fact that they maybe had the best name). His name is Danny, and he filled me in on some of their beliefs and practices. He told me he was taught you had to be baptized to be saved. He told me they didn’t allow musical instruments in the worship because they weren’t in the Bible. “What about the psalms and all that jazz about praising God with stringed instruments, clanging cymbals, and such and so?” I asked. “That’s Old Testament,” he said, “we just practice the New Testament, and you won’t find any of those stringed instruments and cymbals in there.” We also disagreed on whether a saved person can lose his or her salvation: Danny said yes; I said no. He told me that “unlike you Baptist churches, we follow the pattern of the early church and serve the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning. And without saying it outright, he implied that the Church of Christ is confident that they’re the only ones who truly believe and practice what the Bible teaches. “So does that mean that Baptists like me won’t be saved and won’t make it to heaven?” Well, he sort of hem-hawed around on that one—didn’t say yes, didn’t say no. I think he wanted to say that his kind were the only ones who were going to make it; I think that’s probably what he believed, but Danny was a nice guy and he didn’t have the heart or the edge to just come out and say it. So we had some interesting conversations, sharing our beliefs and why we believed the way we did. I loved Danny then. I love him still. But that was my introduction to the Church of Christ. They struck me as narrow, short-sighted, and off target in some key areas (especially their baptism is necessary for salvation doctrine).
I hadn’t really thought much more about the Church of Christ until just a few years ago, when I struck up an acquaintance with a local Church of Christ pastor, a young man, who had spoken to a group in our church about the beliefs of his church. We corresponded via email concerning some of our differences, and one day he came to see me with an elder. They spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me from the Bible that they were right on baptism as necessary for salvation and we Baptists were wrong. While we Baptists teach that baptism is closely linked to salvation, is very, very important, and that the New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian, baptism is not necessary for salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, period. Baptism is for a believer, by immersion, and as an act of obedience, not as a way we can secure our salvation, as if Christ’s blood was not quite sufficient. So this young pastor and his elder left the meeting on, I think, friendly terms but obviously disappointed they had not swayed me to their interpretation.
So, you may be thinking, why did I go to a Church of Christ to worship? Well, for one thing, I know the pastor to some degree and consider him a friend and colleague in ministry. I met him first when we shared a funeral service. Recently we were in a study group together. I find him to be studious, serious, deeply devoted to Christ and the Scriptures and the church. He also has an engaging sense of humor and appeared to be much more open to differing views than any other Church of Christ folks I was acquainted with. So, since I knew the pastor (not to mention a few other folks that went to church there), I decided to attend their worship.
What a friendly church! We were greeted warmly by people at the door and by others we knew from the community. We took a seat at the back and waited for worship to begin. There were no piano or organ, so we knew the singing would be voices-only. I was looking forward to that and was not disappointed in my expectations. Following a prayer time for children and teachers as they begin a new school year this week, the singing began. Good stuff. I only knew a couple of the songs, It Is Well and I Will Rise, but I quickly learned and enjoyed them all. They showed the words and music on a central screen—no hymnals.
Next came the Lord’s Supper. I had never seen it in the middle of a service before, but that’s where it was. And much to my surprise, the worship leader announced that it was an open communion for all believers in Jesus Christ. (I don’t think my roommate’s church would have stood for that.) So we took communion with them. It was a worshipful time, if not strange to us on two fronts: one, no organ or piano music (only silence except for the rattling of communion trays as people retrieved the elements and as ushers stacked the trays), and two, there was what appeared to be a wasp resting on the hair of the man down the row from us. That was a bit distracting. That wasp sat there for the longest time before he finally had enough of that man’s hair or that worship service and flew away.
After the Lord’s Supper they took an offering, had another song as I recall, and then the pastor preached. Like everyone else he was dressed very casually. He preached from Ephesians 5 as apparently he is in a series on the family. When one considers how much the American church mirrors the culture in terms of divorce, we probably can’t preach enough on the family. This particular sermon was addressed primarily to husbands. The preacher had slides on the screen that included his text and his points and a picture or two that illustrated what he was trying to say. He used some humor (as is necessary when preaching on such touchy subjects) yet worked hard to show husbands that they can love their wife as Christ loved the church because of the power of Christ. It was a practical sermon with good theological rootage in Paul’s analogy of marriage as a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. Most sermons I’ve heard and/or preached on this text often boil down to “three ways a husband can love his wife like Christ loved the church.” This pastor preached a bigger sermon than that. After the sermon we sang a song (not an invitation hymn) and then the music leader called on someone from the congregation to close the service in prayer. And we were done.
In reflection, I’m not sure I could have had that kind of experience in any other Church of Christ in our city. This one is different. It is not your grandpa’s Church of Christ in doctrine or in practice. Their doctrines are not widely different but different enough to welcome believers from other denominations to the Table of the Lord and not just to assume we were in a handcart to hell because were weren’t Church of Christ. And knowing this pastor a little, I don’t think they’ve made these changes to be popular; I think they’ve made them because they believe them to be in line with the Scripture. It was a joy to worship with these brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we were leaving a businessman I know in that church told me I how much he appreciated our church’s work in the community and that he had recommended us to a Baptist young woman who moved to town and took a job in his company. A Church of Christ person actually recommending a Baptist church to someone? What’s the church coming to? Perhaps to our senses: our sense of unity in the Body of Christ, our sense of playing on the same team even if we don’t agree on every jot and tittle. Could this be one small sign that Jesus’ prayer of John 17 is being answered? After praying for his disciples, Jesus prays for those of us who will hear His word through the message of the disciples: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” More and more, God is making His people one. And I praise Him for it.
Oh yes, one final footnote. You remember my roommate Danny? He’s now a deacon in one of the largest Baptist churches in Arkansas. He serves God in missions in the world and in ministry through his church. He claims that watching my life and sharing in all those faith conversations we had in college played a huge part in his decision to become Baptist. I’m flattered by that, but I don’t think that was the key factor in Danny’s decision. While theology was most certainly a factor for Danny, the trump card was this: he married a Baptist preacher’s daughter. Those two became one—a Baptist one. Oh for the day when all of God’s children are one—not a Baptist one or a Presbyterian one or a Church of Christ one, but a God-loving, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled one in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Friday, August 13, 2010
That’s where we went last Sunday morning for worship. I’m almost 54 years old, been going to church my entire life, have visited all kinds of churches, but I’ve never set foot among the Assembly of God. I suppose it was time. And honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
In the town where I finished growing up we had an Assembly of God church. It was a small town. I was acquainted with the pastor and his family—went to school with his kids. And his kids had to wear dresses all the time. When I started public school all the girls wore dresses, but somewhere near the end of grade school or the beginning of junior high, the dress code changed. Girls started wearing jeans and pants just like the guys. Well, not all the girls—not the Assembly girls. It was dresses for them. The pastor’s girls were good athletes but even when they played sports for the school teams, they had to wear skirts over the bottoms of their uniforms. That struck a Presbyterian kid like me as odd.
And I had heard other stories about that Assembly church too. They spoke in “tongues.” Right during the service someone might stand up and start speaking in this babbling, unintelligible language that no one could understand. I remember a friend of mine telling me that he visited there and those “tongues” darn near scared him to death. Hmmm. Would we be exposed to that practice in the Assembly church we were going to visit? Since my youth I have heard people speak in “tongues” so I knew it wouldn’t scare me, but if tongues broke out on Sunday morning, I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d feel or what I'd think. We sat at the back just in case.
And another thing was on my mind as we prepared to visit this church. I’ve heard that Assembly churches are pretty boisterous and enthusiastic in their worship. I figured there would be a lot of clapping, a lot of shouted Amens, a lot of hands of praise held high in the air, and maybe even see a member or two get “slain in the Spirit” and fall out like they’d been hit with a taser. Not a big deal for me there. Except for never seeing anybody “slain in the spirit,” I’ve worshiped in black congregations and have had enough experience with animated worship to deal with that. Heck, even the very Baptist church I serve has resorted to applause as their way to express affirmation and appreciation, a way to say Amen with their hands instead of their mouths.
So I had some reservations about worshiping among the Assembly. I carried with me some stereotypes I’d been packing since my youth. But my wife loves the preacher and I love my wife, so that’s where we went last Sunday.
It was not like I expected. Was the worship enthusiastic? Not so much. There were very few shouts of Amen and very few hands of praise waving in the air. Did anyone break out in “unknown tongues”? Not a peep. It was never invited, let alone mentioned. Were all the women in dresses? Nope, not even close. As for the men, I saw maybe a couple of ties but most wore open collar shirts, including the pastor. The music involved a choir and an ensemble holding microphones. A praise band and orchestra backed them up. They sang a couple of contemporary choruses I did not know but easily sang along with after the first time through. They even sang an old hymn, I Stand Amazed in the Presence. There was a prayer and a welcome. There was a video commercial of what was going on in the church that coming week. There was a solo with choir backup. And then the pastor preached. The room was darkened with the exception of a spotlight of sorts on the pastor. It was a techno sermon. Though no one ever asked me to open my Bible, the pastor’s texts from Deuteronomy and Joshua were shown on the screens. And they even had some kind of fancy-schmancy techno-gizmo that allowed some of the pastor’s main points to be shown on the walls around the church. Pretty cool effect. The pastor preached about Joshua overcoming his fears and how we can learn from Joshua to overcome our fears. While the sermon was kind of a pep talk to the fearful, it was rooted in the grace of God who protects and encourages and comes alongside us when we are afraid. On reflection, I would call it worship-lite, gospel-lite—sort of what Vance Havner used to say about "putting the cookies on the lowest shelf." If one didn’t know the great heritage of the Christian faith and this was his only worship experience, he might come to think that this whole Christian deal is more a here-and-now, hip thing than a there-and-then and a yet-to-come thing as well.
For me, the most compelling part of the service was the testimony of a missionary from a south Asian country who, as a kind of conclusion to the sermon, spoke of their work—a modern day example of God coming alongside His people in a scary and dangerous place and giving them the resources to do Kingdom work even there. At the pastor's request, a few folks circled this missionary family and prayed for them. They took an offering for the family too. It sounded like they were doing Jesus-work, so I tossed some offering in the bag when it came my way. The offering was accompanied by a slick video of the missionary's work and when it was finished so was the service. The Youth Pastor or somebody said, "That's it, have a good day." And that was that.
The bulletin stated that communion would be offered to those who wanted it at the end of the service near the front of the sanctuary. I thought I might like to do that if they offered it to someone outside the Assembly, but no word was ever said about it in worship. That must be an inside thing, I guess.
Anyway, I found the people friendly and Christian and lovers of Jesus. In spite of the large size of the church, the pastor was very accessible to everyone before and after the services. And I was pleased that a large church that needs plenty of resources to keep itself staffed and its bills paid still had a heart for the world and a commitment to keep these missionaries in South Asia, sharing the love and salvation of Christ with that culture’s throw-away children. I worshiped God—which depends as much on the worshiper, I suppose, as it does on those who lead the service.
Still, I left a bit disappointed. Not in God and not in the church. I was disappointed in my experience. I feel like I didn’t get the normal Assembly experience by visiting this particular church. It was very tame and clearly structured. Honestly, that worship service was no different than I could have experienced in pretty much any “contemporary” style church in America regardless of the denominational label. Perhaps I need to find an Assembly church more like the little one in my hometown. But then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have been looking for an experience; I should have been looking for Christ who can always be found where two or three people are gathered in His name to worship Him, regardless of the style or the label of the people doing the worshiping. Like Psalm 26:12 declares: “My feet stand on level ground; in the great assembly I will praise the Lord.” We are one in Christ after all, and I can praise him in the Assembly as thankfully as I can praise Him in any Baptist church I know.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
We were cutting it close on time, which made me a bit nervous. I wanted to get there early enough for a back row seat, thus establishing my Baptist identity lest someone mistake my attendance there as a defection to Methodism. After being warmly greeted at the door, we found our seats and settled in. (Hmmm . . . either we weren’t the only Baptists there or Methodists are pretty fond of the back row too.) No sooner had we found our seats than we were greeted by a lady in front of us. And a few minutes later the pastor, making his way through the sanctuary greeting his flock, greeted us too. (I like it when pastors do that sort of thing.) Most of the folks in that early service were my age and older. There were a few younger families, a handful of children, and at least one disinterested teenager who sat near to us. (I’ve been that kid, and I kind of felt for him.)
As we were waiting for the service to commence, I took note of the room. It’s an old sanctuary, a large room with a lot of stone, a lot of stained-glass, and a lot of pipes for the organ. The pews go straight back with a slight elevation from front to back to make for better lines of sight. It’s a room that reminds the worshiper that God is large and transcendent, bigger than we are, above us, beyond us, and yet within our reach. I’ve always liked this room – maybe because it reminds me of my Presbyterian upbringing.
And if the room reminded me of that, so did the worship. We began with an organ duet prelude that filled the room with sound. That was followed by a song from a visiting choir, the Hendrix College Choir of 1974. They were having a reunion that weekend in Hot Springs and worship was one of their gigs. I thought they looked a little old until I realized that they were my age. And man, could they sing! They began with a spiritual, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, and I could certainly feel the Spirit when they sang it. After the song we sang a Christmas hymn. Never sang a Christmas hymn in August, but I liked it. Apparently, that was the way the visiting choir opened the annual Carols and Candles Service at Hendrix College when they were in school. Nice. There were more hymns and some readings and prayers – again, the kind of stuff we did in the Presbyterian church when I was growing up. It brought back memories for me. I could see my mother and grandmother in the choir, glaring at me with a look that said, “If you don’t straighten up and pay attention, you are gonna get it when we get home!” I could see some of the widows with blue hair, our preacher in his black robe, and I could see on the backs of my hands the imprint of the pew upholstery you could get if you sat on your hands for about 30 seconds. Anyway, this Methodist worship reminded me of the worship of my childhood and youth.
My stroll down memory lane was interrupted when the ushers distributed to each row a registration pad. You had to sign in. It struck me that Methodists must keep better track of their people than we Baptists do of ours. But even though we are Baptists, we signed in. The offering was next - pretty much the same place in their worship that we do it in ours.
Soon it was time for the preaching. I didn’t know what to expect. Will Willimon is one of my favorite preachers, and he’s a Methodist, but I just haven’t heard enough Methodist preaching to form many judgments about it. The pastor read his text from John 15 and launched into his sermon about staying alive. He was animated and dynamic in his delivery which was important because if you are going to preach about staying alive, you better do your best to look pretty much alive yourself. He looked and was alive. He framed the sermon around three images from the text: abide in Christ, bear fruit, and joy. He told some good stories to drive home his points and left me loving Christ a little more than when I came. I don't mean to insult Methodists here, but it was a sermon that could have found a home in any Baptist church I know. It was a good gospel sermon.
So we got to hear the gospel, and then we got to taste it. It was Communion Sunday. The Baptist church I serve practices open communion but many Baptist churches don’t. The Methodists practice open communion as a policy, I think. Anyway, they made a point to invite everyone who wanted communion to come get communion. So the pastor invited us, read the words of institution and some prayers from their worship book, gave directions for the newbies in the crowd, and then worshipers made their way to the nearest station to receive the bread and cup. A worship leader gave us a piece of bread with these words: “The body of Christ given for you.” We then dipped the bread into a cup of juice or wine (I’m not sure which) with these words in our ears: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” We consumed the soggy, half-purple bread on the way back to our seat. It tasted like grace. There was joy in it, and it was a pleasure to receive the elements from a brother pastor of a different stripe and with a number of folks I know in the community but never get to worship or commune with. (Note to that beer-drinking group of guys on the mountain in that old beer commercial: it does get better than that.) And I enjoyed the better.
The service closed with a benediction and the hymn, Blest Be the Tie That Binds. I usually sing that song with Baptists. It was nice to sing it with Methodists and be reminded that our Christian family is a lot larger than my own denomination. The Hendrix Choir of 1974 sang one more song and that was that.
As Dayna and I left the sanctuary, a couple of things were on my mind – two lines from the Psalms, actually. One, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” And two, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
Denominations have their place; they are not all bad. We will all reach some that others won’t. We will all appeal to some that others won’t. That’s the good in them, I think. But denominations are a temporary thing: a thing for this world, not the next. So it’s a good idea for us to cross-pollinate in worship now and then on this side of heaven. Not only might it make our worship deeper, our fellowship wider, and our faith richer, I think it might even make God smile.